As the war in Ukraine grinds on, with Kyiv’s energy infrastructure once again under attack, fresh questions are being raised about whether Russia and Ukraine came closer than we previously realised to finalising a deal two years ago to end the bloodshed.

An investigation published on Tuesday in Foreign Affairs – which is well worth a read – suggests that Russian and Ukrainian negotiators, aided by countries such as Turkey and Belarus, reached the late stages of crafting a long-term peace treaty in April 2022. 

Its authors, Samuel Charap and Sergey Radchenko – who interviewed negotiators and government officials as well as examining draft agreements, some previously unseen – quote Oleksandr Chalyi, one of the Ukrainian peace delegates: “We were very close in mid-April 2022 to finalising the war with a peace settlement,” says Chalyi. “A week after Putin started his aggression, he concluded he had made a huge mistake and tried to do everything possible to conclude an agreement with Ukraine”.

According to Charap and Radchenko, a late-stage draft on 15 April “suggests that the treaty (to end the war) would be signed within two weeks”. 

But, by May 2022, talks – which began on 28 February – had broken down. 

Some of the concessions made to Kyiv in these late-stage draft agreements are striking. While Ukraine had agreed to renounce any intention to join military alliances or allow foreign military bases or troops on its soil, it would, under the proposed peace deal, have obtained major security guarantees. Guarantees that would, for instance, obligate a host of countries, including the US, to come to its defence militarily if Moscow were to attack Ukrainian soil again in the future.

There is reason to feel a little sceptical as to whether Russia and Ukraine came quite as close to signing a final deal as some of their negotiators maintain they did. These late-stage negotiations appear, for instance, to have left some sticky questions about territory and borders unanswered. Another puzzling aspect of the draft agreements is the lack of clarity over how much the western countries being put forward as future security guarantors for Ukraine had actually been consulted during negotiations. Indeed, the investigation later concludes that one of many reasons the talks eventually broke down was that “Western buy-in for the security guarantees that Kyiv wanted was not forthcoming.”

But another theory provided by Charap and Radchenko as to why peace talks eventually broke down is interesting: in late March, just as the talks were in what the authors label their “final stages”, Russia abandoned its efforts to take Kyiv and pulled back its forces from the entire northern front. This big military boost for Ukraine, unsurprisingly, reduced interest in making compromises at the negotiating table. For the first time, Zelensky was presented with the real possibility that this was actually a war Kyiv could win.

Equally crucially, the Russian withdrawal in the north paved the way for the discovery of the scale of Russian atrocities in Irpin and Bucha. When Kyiv reclaimed these cities, the stark evidence which subsequently emerged of Russian soldiers’ rape and mutilation of Ukrainian civilians hardened the mood. Zelensky, as Charap and Radchenko put it, “understood that what he began to refer to as Russia’s ‘genocide’ in Ukraine would make diplomacy with Moscow even more politically fraught.”

By late April, Ukraine had hardened its position, demanding a Russian withdrawal from the Donbas as a precondition to any treaty. By May, talks were over. 

Two years on, the prospect for peace talks appears dim. 

Perhaps it’s naive to think Putin would have ever abided by the terms of any peace negotiation made in the early stages of war. After all, he seemed to have no qualms about breaking the Minsk agreements. Even so, the documents shine a light on the delicate nature of timing in war. They raise the possibility that, if the progress of these peace talks had coincided slightly differently with developments on the battlefield, things might have turned out rather differently. 

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